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 The “Missing Link” and the Digital Divide: The Maitland Report Revisited

In 1985, ITU released a specially-commissioned report entitled The Missing Link, which drew international attention to the shocking imbalance in telephone access between developed and developing countries.

The origins of the report lay in ITU’s 1982 Nairobi Plenipotentiary Conference, which set up the independent Commission for World-Wide Telecommunications Development. Chaired by Sir Donald Maitland, the Commission was mandated to identify the obstacles hindering communications infrastructure development and to recommend ways to stimulate telecoms development worldwide. The Commission’s widely acclaimed report, The Missing Link, was submitted in 1985 to then ITU Secretary-General, Richard Butler.

The Maitland Commission coined the expression “missing link” to highlight the chronic lack of telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world. Early on in its work, the Commission was unanimous in concluding that “the gross and growing imbalance in the distribution of telecommunications throughout the world was not tolerable”.

Back then, pre-mobile telephony, there were some 600 million fixed telephones in the world, with three-quarters of them concentrated in the nine most industrialized countries. The remainder were distributed unevenly, with the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa often having fewer than one fixed line per 500 people.

The Missing Link was the first report to underline the direct correlation between the availability of, and access to, telecommunication infrastructure and a country’s economic growth. The gap cut across all dimensions of universal access/service, showing not only the disparity between rich countries and poor ones, but between the wealthy within a given society and the poor, and those who live in rural areas versus urban-dwellers.

As a way forward, the Commission set the goal that by the early part of the 21st century, nearly all humankind should be within easy reach of a telephone. But what was to be understood by “easy reach”? In rural areas, this came to be defined as at least one telephone within 2 hours’ walking distance of every person by the year 2000.

To reach this goal, many developed countries focused on expanding their already widely available networks to disadvantaged parts of their population and on improving the performance of existing networks. In other words, they put the emphasis on “universal service” (which dictates that every home should have its own individual telephone service – traditionally, a fixed-line telephone) as opposed to the broader concept of “universal access”.

For developing countries, The Missing Link report conversely meant a focus on universal access — striving to provide access to information and communication technologies (ICT) to as high a percentage of the population as possible, through shared access strategies (for example, via payphones, cybercafés, community facilities like multipurpose telecentres) rather than a telephone in every home.

Twenty years on, how far have we come in redressing the imbalance in telecommunications access? The Missing Link identified lack of infrastructure as a key barrier to access. But since then, the debate has broadened to include applications and the skills or training required for communities to take advantage of new ICTs.

Rolling out infrastructure twenty years ago meant putting the onus on public switched telephone network (PSTN) operators to build and extend networks. Users required little or no training to use a standard telephone. But with the current shift from circuit-switched to IP-based networks, and from fixed-lines to wireless, along with the development of new kinds of information networks like the Internet, life is very different in the Information Society.

Catching up, but not fast enough?

ITU regularly tracks progress in bridging the Digital Divide, notably through its World Telecommunication Development Report, the first edition of which was published on the tenth anniversary of the publication of The Missing Link. Let’s look at progress over the last twenty years:

  • Back in 1985, some three billion people - or around half of the world’s population - lived in economies with a teledensity (telephone lines per 100 inhabitants) of less than one. The global average teledensity was around 7. There were fewer than one million mobile phones worldwide and only a few tens of thousands of Internet users (the World Wide Web did not yet exist).
  • By late 2005, only eight economies, with a population of less than 160 million, or around 2.5 per cent of the world’s population, have a total teledensity (fixed and mobile combined) of less than one. The global average total teledensity is around 50. There are around two billion mobile phones worldwide, and around 750 million Internet users.

Nevertheless, although much progress has been made, there still remain vast differences in access to telecommunications. For example, in 2003, total teledensity ranged from 0.3 in Liberia to 173 in Taiwan, China.

In China, where the fixed-line teledensity in 1985 was just 0.3 per cent, it had reached 20.9 per cent in 2003, while mobile density had also reached 21.5. In India too, fixed-line teledensity increased significantly from 0.4 per cent in 1990 to 4.6 per cent in 2003, while mobile teledensity also reached 2.5.

Some of the fastest rates of growth have been observed in Africa, which now has the fastest growing regional telecommunications economy. At the time of the Maitland report, there were just 7.1 million telephones continent-wide. The report famously noted that in 1985, Tokyo had more telephones than the whole of the African continent, with its population of 500 million. But by 2003, the number of fixed-line telephones in Africa had grown threefold while the number of mobile phones had increased to over 50 million. More users have been added to the network in Africa in the first few years of the 21st century than in the whole of the hundred years that preceded it.

The lower costs of deploying mobile networks along with telecoms market liberalization have gone a long way towards improving access to telecommunications, including in rural and remote communities. What’s more, the two major market trends that have dominated the ICT landscape in the last twenty years or so — the growth of mobile communications and the Internet — were not foreseen in the Maitland report.

The digital divide conundru

With ICTs now the backbone of the global information economy, Maitland’s “missing link” has evolved from a narrowband, voice-based divide to a new kind of “missing link”. This gap has come to be known as the “digital divide”. One of the earliest references to this term appeared in the United States back in 1998, when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration published a report called Falling through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide. This report used the term to highlight the unequal division of ICTs between different socio-economic groups within the US, revealing major differences in household telephone, computer and Internet availability in terms of income, age, location and educational attainment.

Developed versus developing-country divide

The differences between developed and developing economies can be seen in the level of penetration of different ICT services (telephone, mobile phone, Internet) and of personal computers. As shown in the chart, the gap between developed and developing economies has narrowed with the explosive growth of mobile technologies and the immense popularity of the Internet worldwide. However, given that the developing world accounts for more than 80 per cent of the world population, there is still along way to go.

Imagine that national populations were growing at similar rates, and that today’s ICT growth rates were sustained. If that were the case, ITU’s report The Portable Internet, released in September 2004, suggests that it would take at least ten years for this gap to be reduced. But the reality, though, is that developing-country populations are growing faster than developed ones, and they have a much higher percentage of their population under the age of 15.

Developed versus developing-country divide
Total number of fixed lines, mobile phones, personal computers and Internet users worldwide in 1993, 1998 and 2003




Click on the picture to enlarge it

For the high definition graphic, click here.

According to The Portable Internet: “This implies that it may take much longer to bridge the digital divide. Furthermore, given that more than a billion of the world’s developing-country population lives on less than USD 2 per day, well below the generally accepted minimum level of income needed for ownership and use of ICTs, it is likely that the fundamental nature of the divide will persist, unless there is profound change in basic socioeconomic conditions.”

Where the other divides lie… and the challenges

There are similarities between Maitland’s “missing link” and today’s digital divide. Most significantly, both concepts acknowledge a direct correlation between access to telecommunications, economic wealth, and social development. The digital divide exists not only between developed and developing countries. It also exists within each country; separating cities from rural areas, the rich from the poor, those with higher education from those with little or no education at all, men from women, and the young from the elderly. In rural and deprived areas, even in countries that are generally well developed, there is often a digital divide that leaves those already at a disadvantage with even fewer means of catching up. It may be more accurate, then, to understand the “digital divide” as encompassing a plurality of divides.

In its draft paper on the developmental issues related to the Internet, the Working Group on Internet Governance(WGIG) underlined that: “The notion of the digital divide in effect encompasses not just the telephony and hardware gaps but also those relating to content, language and applications and capacities to effectively use these technologies to access and contribute to the full spectrum of information and communication services that are becoming viable as the convergence of technologies increases and facilitates a reduction in the cost of provision.”

The WGIG paper points out that “there is, however, still a debate about the various components and dimensions of the divide, with some arguing for the primacy of the telephony divide as more easily addressed.” It goes on to cite one view that has suggested that “the extension of mobile telephony is the way to bridge the digital divide and that Internet access as made available through telecentres is of secondary value as a tool for development to poor people who are illiterate and unable to take advantage of Internet access”. In this regard, the WGIG paper concludes that: “It is thus still unclear to what extent the notion of universal access and the instruments to realize it have taken on board the convergence of technology to the point where universal access means not only access to basic voice telephony but also access to the Internet.”

Connecting the world

At a time when the developed world is focused on data communications, multimedia services and the Internet, would developing countries not be running the risk of falling further behind by concentrating solely on mobile telephony? Is universal access to ICTs a luxury that these countries should not yet regard as a priority? The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003 pointed the way forward by recognizing, in its Plan of Action, that ICT infrastructure is crucial in achieving the goal of digital inclusion. One of the WSIS targets is to connect all villages to ICTs by 2015. ITU has already taken up this challenge with the establishment of the Connect the World multistakeholder initiative in June, 2005.

As a general rule the digital divide usually reflects the income, health and education divides prevalent within and between countries. The root cause of these disparities is poverty. While few people would reject food, shelter or health care, many may see little need for ICTs when their basic needs are not being met. Overcoming the lack of infrastructure and reducing costs may increase access to ICTs. But does it guarantee that people will make use of them?

WSIS driving development

ITU’s World Telecommunication Development Report 2002 entitled “Reinventing Telecoms” highlighted two barriers. One is training, because today’s technologies are far more complex to use than a plain old telephone. The Internet is of little use to people who do not have the skills to take advantage of electronic access to information to improve their lives. A second barrier is a compelling motivation to use the Internet. There are many success stories on how ICTs are being used to improve people’s lives, even in isolated, remote communities. What is lacking is research on how ICTs can truly transform the development process in poor countries.

The good news is that there is an increasing recognition (notably through the WSIS process) that barriers to development, such as poverty, illiteracy, epidemics and bad governance, cannot be fought meaningfully without better access to information. Indeed, if information is power, then the Internet is a potent way of empowering those that have traditionally been left behind.

Ironically, the principal means of Internet access used by many developing countries is still dial-up, via the public switched network. Given the prohibitive cost and time delays involved in rolling out fixed-line infrastructure, so-called “portable” Internet, based around advanced wireless technologies that can be used either in fixed or mobile locations, may represent the means to leapfrog into improved connectivity for developing world users and communities. When policy-makers first began to speak of the digital divide, the concern then was to promote dial-up Internet access. But another gap has surfaced: “the broadband divide”.

Broadband data transmission (a high-speed, always-on connection) is becoming a key requirement for improved Internet access. If the mobile revolution is one day extended to include portable Internet-enabled devices at low cost to users, this could promise a bright future for developing countries where mobile is the dominant form of access. While third generation (3G) mobile services are expected to play a part in this new mobile broadband experience, the real excitement is already being generated by the vision of fixed-wireless Internet and efficient spectrum-use technologies such as Wi-Fi, Wi-Max and WiBRO. If developing countries do not look at implementing comprehensive and technology-neutral universal access/service policies, they run the risk of repeating history and extending the “missing link” to broadband capabilities as well.

Developing-country users have demonstrated their willingness to pay for ICT services, if they are marketed in ways all users can afford, such as pre-paid cards. A similar pay-as-you-go model designed for the portable Internet, coupled with ambitious public access programmes, could be the new vision for bridging the digital divide. However, for such a vision to become a reality, outstanding standardization issues need to be resolved, as do problems like lack of a reliable electricity supply.

There are other challenges, too, for the industry. One is simplicity. Even today’s mobile devices are still too complicated to be use by all. The Industry needs to focus some of its innovative efforts on simplifying the use of technology so that real people in real places can afford it, understand it and use it fully.

Copies of the original Maitland report in English, French and Spanish, can be found on the ITU website at:



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Updated : 2005-11-09